[4 August 2004]
Ours is a musical landscape where record companies, MTV, and other entrepreneurs that traffic in new music need to consume each “next big thing” to survive, like vultures need unguarded carcasses. Therefore, it is inevitable that music movements that begin in earnest become commodified ever quicker, their authors drained of inspiration, the music made repeatable, and packaged with a smile to a throng of listeners with increasingly short attention spans. As a result of this predatory relationship, music genres that were once groundbreaking become hollow categories synonymous with the user-friendly bands that have brought the music to the mainstream. Sum 41 is “punk”, Marilyn Manson is “goth”, Dashboard Confessional is “emo”, A Perfect Circle is “alternative” (a term that has absolutely no meaning in today’s musical landscape), and the term “industrial” conjures up an image of stringy haired, dog collared sourpusses humorlessly clanging away on garbage can lids while hissing menacing lyrics over the din.
While many in the originating camp of the former categories are faced with almost unrecognizable parodies of the music they helped invent, German industrial pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten both fit and break the mold that signifies the boundaries of their particular brand of new wave Krautrock. With their notoriously abrasive songs and über-serious persona, they certainly offer plenty of fodder for the cliches that surround industrial noise. Yet somehow they have managed to maintain a substantive grasp on some of the most interesting aspects of industrial noise, even as the genre itself has disintegrated into another musical idea that makes more sense as another niche at Hot Topic than as an active segment of today’s music community.
For those unfamiliar with these pioneers, Einstürzende Neubauten are a force of nature, or, um, a force of industry. The band originated in Berlin as part of Die Geniale Dilletante, an arts collective inspired by the Dadaist arts movement that had reached its boundary-pushing apex in the early years of the second world war. Their name translates loosely to “collapsing” or “imploding new buildings” in English and, as their verb-laden name suggests, this band is and always has been all about music as an action. The man credited by fans and critics as being the mastermind behind the band calls himself Blixa Bargeld (he was born Christian Emmerich), and his penchant for aggressive industrial noise and experimental instruments helped propel the band to their status as one of the innovators of what would later be couched in the term “industrial music”.
Kalte Sterne consists of 13 tracks of material compiled by Bargeld that were originally recorded in the years 1981 and 1982, before the band released their debut full-length, Kollapse. The record makes clear that these were golden years for the band, when the novelty of their formation made every song resonate with a palpable and furious energy. Additionally, the songs represented on Kalte Sterne represent a unique period in the band’s catalog. Despite their brash and confrontational veneer, the compositions on the record are, with very few exceptions, meticulously arranged and performed. Some of the tracks even approach a catchiness and a discernible melodiousness rare for a band that has become so infamous for their violent disregard for such restrictive notions.
As with the music that would later be recorded after the pieces compiled on Kalte Sterne, Blixa and company generously depart from traditional guitar-bass-drums instrumentation. Employing not only unusual instruments like wind chimes, children’s toys, and recorded loops of field noise, the band is expert at coaxing interesting sounds from industrial materials and household objects that range from carefully amplified metal springs to power drills and window glass. The band even goes as far as to list a “survival blanket” as a mysterious source of noise on the final track, “Schwartz”.
While it is clear that the band was more than willing to sacrifice conventional melody in favor of the more generous realm of the “soundscape” or “noise collage”, the real treasures of Kalte Sterne are to be found when the band features its simplest elements, namely Bargeld’s ear for the careful arrangement of a constantly changing palate of odd noises and an enormous capacity for restraint. What Einstürzende Neubauten realize that so many band’s with similar aesthetics do not is that noise is most effective when it is not used to bludgeon a listener into submission. While many of the sounds that the band uses in their songs are harsh and conventionally “unmusical”, the band treats even the most abrasive noise as if it were an integral part of a harmonious symphony.
Album opener “Fuer den Untergang” is an example of the success of the band’s painstaking ordering of a variety of unusual sounds. A fierce and sparse track that consists primarily of tribal-sounding drums and Bargeld’s voice, which grows in intensity as the song progresses, the song could easily have been drowned by superfluous noise. Instead, the song is allowed to flourish in its simplicity—occasionally keyboard sounds invade the chant-like melody, along with a menacing slide guitar and a noise made by plucking guitar strings behind the instrument’s bridge, a sound now familiarized by its appearance in Nirvana’s recently released recording, “You Know You’re Right”. “Tan-Ze-Dub” gets similarly light-handed treatment, with a composition based almost solely on rhythmic the beating of a tom drum, interlaced throughout with Bargeld’s echoey vocals.
“Zuckendes Fleisch” is easily the most approachable song on the record, a buoyant bass line providing more of a structural springboard than the band usually gives their compositions, making an aural connection between this early track and a more melodic contemporary, Bauhaus. “13 Loecher (Leben ist Illegal)” is another song held precariously together by bass rhythms, yet just as the melody begins to cohere, it is quickly laid to waste by the hilarious employment of a power drill (get it?—it’s so industrial!), which covers nearly every other sound with layer of grinding noise.
Though the majority of the songs on Kalte Sterne are similarly spirited, there are a few tracks that fail to make the grade. Most notable of these is the nine-minute opus “Thirsty Animal”, which features a raging Lydia Lunch spouting furious verse over droning guitars. Though the song has a few inspired moments, Lunch’s rantings are not in top form and the song disintegrates into a mess of morose bass slaps and murky guitar fuzz, while Lunch repeatedly moans the unfortunate refrain, “We’ll bring out the leeches / To suck the bloodless” and “Stick it / Stick it / Stick it full of holes”. Lunch’s scathing solo spoken word albums have historically shown that she is capable of much better than this, and as the rest of Kalte Sterne proves, so are Bargeld and his compatriots.